Vladimir Michael Gelesnoff Memorial Part Two

Faithful Laborers

adapted from volume 13, number 2 of Unsearchable Riches magazine) 

In Memoriam

Vladimir M. Gelesnoff, 1877-1921

HIS STAND FOR THE TRUTH

IT WAS while ministering the Word at Fulton Street Prayer Meeting that some small pamphlets were written by him. One I remember was on the “Book of Job.” Another, if I remember right, had for its subject the “Lord's Prayer.” While ministering in various churches in and around New York City, he came in contact with the Christians known as “Brethren” or “Plymouth Brethren.” A year or so before this period the writer had become acquainted with the views of Dr. E. W. Bullinger of London, through his magazine Things to Come, and he was one night agreeably surprised to hear Brother Gelesnoff mention something that seemed in accordance with Dr. Bullinger’s point of view. After the meeting, we were in the train together and he acknowledged to me his indebtedness to Dr. Bullinger.

The truth (which none of us at that time saw more clearly than “as trees walking”) was now working, and in a mind and heart as loyal to his beloved Master as Brother Gelesnoff’s was, truth had to run its appointed course. Our dear brother gave practical evidence in his subsequent ministry, that TRUTH was his goal and not the adulatory hand-clap of an unthinking crowd. He would have his intelligence worship as well as his emotions, and not recognizing any virtue as being inherent in ignorance, he sought to “follow on to know the Lord” through His word.

The appreciation of Mr. Gelesnoff’s ministry continued. A whisper spread that Mr. Gelesnoff was in reality “Count Gelesnoff.” Titles are mighty magnets for many to whom truths have no attraction. Our brother, however, was anxious that souls should come to hear God and not Gelesnoff. And if he was ever advertised as “Count Gelesnoff” it was in opposition to his own preference in the matter.

“Where is the truth concerning the Church?” was the title of the first booklet published by him which caused great commotion, in some cases approaching consternation, as many felt their own peculiar ecclesiastical edifice being tested by the searching winds of truth. Especially when the said edifice rested upon a certain interpretation of the Book of Acts, it was alarming when an examination of that book, without the special-colored spectacles of tradition, showed that interpretation to be opposed to the real facts of the case. The whole question of Baptism was re-opened, and controversial articles were swift in appearing, some of them, unfortunately, more personal and pointed than polite. Brother Gelesnoff refused consistently to enter an empty controversy, or take part in a mere mud-slinging contest, and by his quiet, uncomplaining attitude of meekness gave evidence that he was indeed a member of the nobility–one of God’s gentlemen.

INVITES PERSECUTION

The writer is not aware that Brother Gelesnoff was ever actually “read out” of any of the Brethren’s meetings, as some of his associates were. But, nevertheless, the hands that would gladly have clapped at his earlier ministry were soon reaching for stones to stone the man that questioned their pretensions as “the people.” The rancor of creed-adherence to a traditional point of view, as shown by a people whose creed is unwritten–the tyranny of a supposedly unsectarian ecclesiasticism–the soul-crushing dogmatism of a professedly “unorganized” system–were soon felt by our beloved brother. A mere handful of Bible lovers remained with him, and after teaching for a time in New York Brother Gelesnoff removed to Minneapolis.

It would be impossible to write a satisfactory history of Brother Gelesnoff’s ministry in New York. How could we know much of one who never spoke about himself? He was a “voice crying in the wilderness.” A voice, not an echo. If he had a difficulty J. N. Darby or W. Kelly were not final authorities upon it. And if he was not swayed by others’ opinions, neither could he be purchased by others’ wealth. He lived “unto the Lord.”

Beloved Brother Gelesnoff! Our Master in pity and love has closed your tired eyelids in the sleep of death! No bitter or unkind word can longer wound your gentle spirit! Soon that frame of yours will thrill with life immortal when the finger of God shall touch your dust within the tomb, never again to know an ache or a pain or feel your heart grow weary with an unrequited love! Then shall you see in broad expanse the truth you loved and lived and died for, and we with you shall know as we never knew before the love that “passeth knowledge.” Until then, dear fellow servant of our Master Christ–until then–Good night!   A. BURNS

The gracious and simple character of his ministry in those early days is beautifully preserved for us in “The Pathway of Faith,” which gives a condensed report of a series of lectures delivered at the Fulton Street meetings in 1906. With inimitable simplicity and power, he presents the spiritual careers of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph. In it we find an echo of his own spiritual life and the great purpose he had formed, to put God’s word above all else. While holding meetings in a Canadian town, a minister came to him at the close of the service to express his appreciation of the address. He said, “You have given us solid meat, but you know, we preachers must use spices.” To this, he gave the characteristic reply: “My brother, herein is the trouble; we have devoted altogether too much time to the preparation of spices and have neglected the meat.”

Notwithstanding the lack of spice in his speaking, opportunities for service were opening up on all sides. In February 1905, he spoke in Buffalo; in March he addressed the Park Street Church of Boston. In 1906 he lectured in the Marble Collegiate Church in New York.

The truth which was uppermost in his investigations at this time is evident from the booklets which he published at this period. One was entitled, “Where is the Truth about the Church?”It first pointed out distinctly one of the great guiding principles which enabled him to make such unprecedented progress in his later investigations. As in his chemical researches, he used a rigid test to determine the presence or absence of a given substance, so, in the Scriptures, the name of Paul became to him the test of present truth.

“Where is the Truth about the Church?” definitely declined to extract the truth concerning God’s present work of grace from any part of the Divine records except Paul’s epistles. As a result, he not only had a clear and unconfused insight into the peculiar grace in which we revel but all the rest of the Scriptures, being rid of an incubus which they were not able to bear, open up their treasures to him.

“The Great Commission” was written along the same lines. He became convinced that the gospels were never intended to be applied to the present, and the charge to disciple all nations at the end of Matthew’s account can have a fulfillment only in the coming kingdom of Christ.

A private letter, written at this time, reveals his insight into the spiritual confusion and the only scriptural remedy. An extract follows:

“I doubt whether more truth is preached in New York than in Los Angeles, although I certainly think your city can beat New York in the variety of sects. This great city with its population of 4,000,000 is overdone with churches, chapels, missions, and halls of all kinds. Every imaginable fad is seized and made a specialty by a number of professing Christians (and some real ones too) who seek to keep it up before the public as the cure for the church’s ills. But, alas, the truth of God–the truth rightly divided–is not preached. The confusion resulting from the neglect of Paul’s injunction in 2 Tim.2:15 is already so fearfully bewildering that most people don’t know where they stand. What will things come to if the Lord’s people will not turn to God and receive His word properly divided?”

PUBLISHES “ON BAPTISM”

Some years after he came to, New York he met and married Miss Ernestine Cesan. She was a very devout Christian woman and was much impressed with the popularity of her husband’s lectures on Biblical subjects. She was very anxious for Mr. Gelesnoff to give up all of his research work and most of his engineering and devote all of his time to the teaching of the Bible. She finally persuaded him to do this. For some years he gave lectures but was ill a part of the time and was obliged to undergo a serious surgical operation as the result of an accident.

At this time a circumstance occurred which altered the whole current of his life and led to his association and cooperation with his fellow laborer, Mr. A. E. Knoch. The latter had written a pamphlet, “On Baptism” and as it was an answer to the dispensational position then taught by Dr. E. W. Bullinger, the editor of “Things to Come,” a London publication, it was sent to him, though with scant hopes that it would be read or published. In the providence of God, Dr. Bullinger was just about to leave for a vacation in Scotland and had ample time to consider its teachings.

As a result, he proposed to publish it in his paper and announced it beforehand as a forthcoming series. This was seen by Theo. B. Freeze, a friend of Mr. Gelesnoff’s, who wrote to Dr. Bullinger, asking to be put in touch with the writer of the articles on baptism. He thus obtained a copy of the manuscript and showed it to Mr. Gelesnoff, who forthwith asked for permission to republish the series in pamphlet form after they appeared in “Things to Come.” Dr. Bullinger kindly had plates made from the type before it was distributed and these were sent to New York.

Thus was formed the nucleus which has since developed into a list of several dozen publications, which treat quite fully of the great truth which seems to have mastered his mind in those days.

STUDIES PROPHECY

At this time also he was deeply interested in so-called “prophetic” truth. Here he was quite as fortunate in finding a key to unlock the secrets of prophecy.

He formed the friendship with a profound scholar whose prophetic teaching was most helpful. He divided prophecy into various periods and showed that the prophetic outlook was gradually developed as time went on so that the later prophets saw much of the future which was invisible to the earlier seers. But Mr. Gelesnoff did not rest with the light thus received, but carried it on to its logical conclusion, showing that there was truth in Paul’s epistles beyond what all the prophets have revealed. He has since set forth a brief outline of this scheme for the study of prophecy in a small pamphlet, “Five Great Prophetic Periods.”

WRITINGS AND ENGAGEMENTS

Throughout his ministry, he made much of future prophecy, and his elucidation of Daniel is a notable contribution to eschatology, as presented in “The Coming Conflict, or The Time of the End.” But it never became a passion with him as some other truths, such as the problem of evil, prophecy in its past accomplishments, or the reconciliation of the universe. The reason for this doubtless lies in the fact that prophecy has its proponents with whom, in a large measure, he was in agreement, but he felt the need of championing such truths as found only opponents and were buried under theological rubbish heaps, waiting for someone who dared to bring them forth.

In the summer of 1908, he gave lectures on the Old Testament at the Northfield Conference with much acceptance. A minister who heard him told a friend that he never in his life had heard such a remarkably able exposition of the Old Testament as Mr. Gelesnoff gave there. The London Christian of September 24, 1908, had this to say of him, “Among the most highly esteemed Bible teachers at Northfield, Mass., is Mr. V. Gelesnoff, of New York. A Russian by birth, Mr. Gelesnoff is deeply versed in Holy Scripture, and for some years past has been in growing request for addresses on the teaching of God’s Word. It is understood that in the near future, he will be more free to respond to requests to conduct meetings in series.”

We next find him devoting his time to the work of “The Evangel and Bible Study Movement.” This consisted of a committee organized with the object of providing courses of systematic Bible instruction, evangelistic meetings and special services to meet the spiritual needs of the churches.

In 1909 he removed his headquarters to Minneapolis and spent considerable of his time lecturing there and in other parts of the Middle West. He lectured in Galt, Paris, And Toronto, Canada, and in a number of cities and towns in Illinois, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He gave a series of lectures at the Northwestern Bible School in Minneapolis.

Up to this time, his public teaching had not been sufficiently heretical to call forth much opposition. He was so greatly encouraged by the hearty reception he received and the attendance at his classes that he urged his California friend to join him and together they would carry the truths they both loved to the many hungry saints.

“UNSEARCHABLE RICHES”

But while in the Northwestern Bible School differences of doctrine and other causes led to a severance, and he continued his classes in a private house. The fruit of his labors was a small class, which has continued ever since, and which is still loyal to the truth which he taught them.

While Mr. Gelesnoff was in New York he contributed to a little magazine gotten out by his dear friend Alan Burns, called Grace and Glory. It was fondly hoped that this would find sufficient support to become a permanent exponent of the new truth which was breaking forth from the Word of God. Its issuance depended humanly speaking, on the voluntary help of a few friends, who did the typesetting and printing. When these failed, however, the magazine was discontinued.

But the effort was not in vain. It became clear that oral testimony was insufficient to effect any marked impression or win many hearts for the fresh truths he had found. The true students of the Scriptures are none too plentiful in any given place. They are scattered over the world, and a printed exposition might reach thousands entirely outside the range of the speaker’s influence. So, after the repeated urgings and solicitations of many friends in various parts of the country he was prevailed on to undertake the publication of a magazine. By this medium the truth has reached many in the British Isles, it is known in Canada and Australia and has reached China and India and the wilds of Africa.

How our hearts rejoiced at the prospect of this new testimony to the truth of God! There was a surfeit of religious publications, but almost all were like the prayer wheels of the Hindoo worshiper, a continual monotonous round which led nowhere. Other precious truth, but nothing fresh and new. We were convinced that we had only touched the fringe of the garment of revelation. Our appetites had been whetted by the progress accomplished through a few students like Dr. Bullinger. A letter was received asking us to suggest a name for the new publication We suggested “From Glory to Glory,” but were glad to withdraw it for “Unsearchable Riches.” Thus was born this little testimony for the hidden truths of God’s Word, which has been the greatest spiritual factor in the life of V.G., as he commonly signed his articles. A biography can only suggest the spiritual excellencies which appear on every page from his pen. One has well said, “No matter what subject he touches, he always sheds fresh light upon it.”

A MAGAZINE FOR THE RECOVERY OF TRUTH

The aim of the magazine was stated in the opening editorial. It is so characteristic that we quote a short paragraph:

“The aim we have in view is the recovery of truth. Much of it was lost immediately after Paul’s departure from this earthly scene. Some has been recovered, but a great deal still remains buried beneath the rubbish of decayed theology. Current teaching, especially on the subject of Paul’s ministries, needs readjustment.”

There is an unbridged chasm between the mere exposition or defense of the truth and its recovery. This involves study, research, investigation, and experiment–and these were the delight of his life. He would rather recover a single gem from the storehouse of truth than be able to repeat the whole round of traditional orthodoxy.

But the fate of the explorer always awaits those who wander from the beaten path. There is not only the hardship of the quest, but the sneers and insults of those who sit at ease in the midst of established doctrine. The deep and humiliating conviction that our opinions are not the truth (which must ever precede any real search) is forgotten by those who charge the discoverer of new light with conceit and pride. As a result, the magazine has become like the early believers–it is everywhere spoken against. The first aim of the magazine was the right division of the word of truth–the principle which, as we have seen, exercised the mind of Mr. Gelesnoff for several years before, during his residence in New York. The contents of the first number are evidence that this is the special aspect of truth which was to be recovered. The leading editorial was along this line. The first article was on “Rightly Dividing the Word.” It was followed by “The Pentecostal Blessing,” of similar import, and concluded with “The Divine Mysteries,” which also emphasized this important point. Only one article “The Christ of God” was along devotional lines, and formed a somewhat pleasing relief from the “solid food” which the bulk of the magazine contained.

It speaks well for his genius in delving into the dark corners of divine revelation to note that, during all the subsequent years, no articles were reprinted from other magazines (unless it be in the “Signs of the Times”) and few, indeed, were the numbers which did not bring some truth out of the obscurity in which it had been hidden. Some truths, indeed, regarding the nature of God, he thought best to delay until the time seemed ripe for its promulgation.

MOVES TO SAN DIEGO

A mind which concentrates so intently on the subject in hand is not easily diverted to other channels. Hence we may learn much of his ministry in Minneapolis from the articles published in the early volumes of the magazine. Indeed, it was his custom, in later years, to write upon the same subject upon which he was discoursing, for one exercise aids the other. So we find him writing a series on “The Acts,” illuminating its pages by applying the principle of a correct division.

Of special note in the recovery of truth was an article from his pen on “The Overthrow of the World.” It sets forth the principles on which the meaning of scriptural words may be decided from their usage in the Scriptures themselves. Yet it was far more than the recovery of an interesting and important word. It revealed the laws and procedure by means of which any term may be tested and its meaning settled. This method, which he called the “Concordance Method” was, he declared, responsible for almost all the truth which has been recovered since the Reformation.

He did not fully realize the importance of this principle at the time, but, in the providence of God, it received a remarkable confirmation. His fellow editor had, quite unknown to him, prepared an article on the same word, and had used the same method, and reached the same conclusion. At first, it was thought useless to publish two articles so nearly alike, but, when a scholar wrote against the position taken, and gave as his only reason, that no “authority” he had consulted corroborated the discovery, it was deemed best to publish both.

THE PROBLEM OF EVIL

An important milestone was thus passed. He definitely broke away from traditional “authorities” and founded his belief on divine evidence. This is the secret of all true progress in the knowledge of God. Many a Protestant is as much enslaved to “authorities” or leaders, as those who leave all their religion to be settled by the prisoner of the Vatican.

During the year 1910 Mr. Gelesnoff met with a painful accident in which his back was injured in the region of his kidneys. Mrs. Gelesnoff had also developed a serious malady, so it was decided that they should go to a warmer climate. San Diego was chosen, and they lived there for more than a year before coming to Los Angeles. In San Diego, Mr. Gelesnoff did a little work in chemistry but devoted most of his time to Bible study and teaching, as well as gospel preaching.

While in San Diego, his mind was much occupied with the problem of evil. Hitherto attempts to solve it had only shelved it. His intellect was too acute to be satisfied with the usual explanation, that Satan, and not God, was responsible for evil. Even if the proposition were granted, the real difficulty remained, for Who was responsible for Satan? Were there two first causes, and, consequently, two Gods? Who created evil? Theology thundered, Satan. The Scriptures declared that God Himself creates evil.

THE DOCTRINE OF THE EONS

Here was the simple and satisfactory solution to the most perplexing of all human problems. The initial revolt of the mind trained in tradition against the plain statement of Holy Writ, soon fails before a further search in the sacred text. Mr. Gelesnoff’s findings were published in a popular tract, “The Problem of Evil,” which was followed by “The Problem of Evil in Job,” and “Free Moral Agency.” His studies in Ecclesiastes, “The Word and Works of God and Man,” explores some of the details of this theme.

His stay in San Diego, while he was busy with the magazine and taught a Bible class, and sometimes preached in one of the churches, was more like the stay of Paul in the desert of Arabia. There he found the true God Who is responsible for all that exists in His universe, and Who does not seek to shift the blame to the shoulders of any of His creatures. Here, indeed, was the Unknown God, serene and supreme, above all the turmoil and strife which clouds His creatures, calmly accountable for all that is.

In a sense, this discovery only deepened the dark problem of the future. Once allow the great truth that God is supreme, the theological doctrine of an endless hell of torment becomes intolerable. It is only a weak irresponsible god who could find any excuse for tormenting his creatures forever. To this perplexing problem, he now applied himself. True, he, like many a saint who has drunk deeply of God’s grace, had often wondered if there were not some terrible blunder, and that a more careful investigation of the Scriptures would not reveal some grievous error. But, so long as the Bible seemed to teach the eternity of evil he would abide by it. But there were passages which taught the opposite. The Bible refuted itself. That the original text contained no such contradiction was axiomatic to one who fully believed it to be the inspired word of God. What was the error that caused all this confusion?

A. E. Knoch

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